Taiwan has expressed “sincere gratitude” to the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, and his defence minister for their warnings against Beijing ratcheting up military pressure against the self-ruled island.
Peter Dutton used a significant speech on Friday to argue “dark clouds” were forming and the world should not repeat “the mistakes of the 1930s” while arguing China was expanding its military at a rapid rate and saw countries across the region as “tributary states”.
The defence minister brushed off accusations he was seeking to use national security to score domestic political points in the lead-up to next year’s election, and said the cost of Australia joining the US in a potential future war to defend Taiwan should be weighed against the cost of inaction.
Morrison backed Dutton’s speech, saying the pair had discussed it beforehand and Australia would “stand up to any form of coercion that occurs”. The prime minister said Dutton was “spot on when it comes to the uncertain environment in which we live”.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the statements of support, adding that it saw Australia as “an important friend and like-minded partner of Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific region”.
Joanne Ou, a ministry spokesperson, told the Guardian there was “a high level of consensus among Australia, the US, Japan, France and other major democracies” on the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
“Both Prime Minister Morrison and Defence Minister Dutton’s remarks reiterated the Australian government’s deep concern for security and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the need to guard against the use of Chinese force against Taiwan, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would like to express its sincere gratitude for this,” she said.
Ou did not comment on Australia’s domestic political debate, but said Taiwan’s government would “continue to work closely with Australia and like-minded countries” to safeguard democratic values and a rules-based international order, and to maintain peace, stability and prosperity.
Dutton attracted significant attention earlier this month when he said it would be “inconceivable” that Australia would not join military action if the US came to Taiwan’s aid in a conflict with China.
As the Australian parliament met for the final sitting week of the year, the leader of the opposition, Anthony Albanese, said it was appropriate to maintain support for the status quo regarding Taiwan.
“You look at the position of the Biden administration, it’s very different from the rhetorical position that Peter Dutton has put forward,” Albanese told the ABC’s 7.30 program on Monday evening.
“We maintain the same position as the United States and we think that is sensible – that is support for the status quo.”
Dutton’s comments prompted criticism from Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong. “Amping up the prospect of war against a superpower is the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history – a tactic employed by irresponsible politicians who are desperate to hang on to power at any cost,” Wong said last week.
Under Australia’s one-China policy, it does not recognise Taiwan as a country in the international system but pursues cooperation with the island of 24 million people in areas such as trade, culture and education.
The intensifying domestic debate in Australia comes at a time when Taiwan is seeking to deepen trade ties and to play a role in international forums such as the World Health Organization.
Taiwan wants support from Australia and other members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership to join the big regional trade pact, but so far the Morrison government has not expressed outright support for its application. China has also said it wants to join the CPTPP.
Taiwan has encouraged Canberra and like-minded partners to participate in security and intelligence-related exchanges.
Dutton on Friday stopped short of outlining any specific short-term step to bolster Taiwan’s role in the international arena, or for closer security or law enforcement cooperation, saying only that he was in “favour of a continuation of the existing arrangement”.
Dr Mark Harrison, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Tasmania and a close watcher of Australia’s unofficial relationship with Taiwan, said: “The test for Australia is what kind of defence preparedness it undertakes and what kind of relationship it is willing to have with the defence establishment in Taiwan, in order to bolster any commitment that Australia would be making to deterrence.”
Taiwan is a particularly sensitive issue in the already strained relationship between Canberra and Beijing.
“Reunification” with Taiwan is a core part of the Chinese Communist party’s ideology – although the CCP has never ruled the island – and China’s president, Xi Jinping, has not ruled out taking it by force if necessary.
China’s acting ambassador to Australia, Wang Xining, hit back at Dutton earlier this month, calling on Australian politicians to “refrain from doing anything that’s destructive to our relationship”.
In an interview with the Guardian, Wang also said Australia would be branded as a “sabre wielder” because of the Aukus plan to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, and questioned whether Australia could afford to cancel a Chinese company’s lease over the Port of Darwin.
China flew 150 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone in the space of four days in early October, prompting both the Australian government and opposition to raise concerns about the increase in military pressure.
Dutton has defended his commentary about Beijing’s “aggressive behaviour”, saying it is based on “facts” and not “wishful thinking”.
But some analysts have argued talk of an inevitable military conflict can inadvertently assist Beijing in its goal to “gradually weaken the will of the people of Taiwan to resist integration with the mainland”.